Congress: Be the partner local communities need on transportation
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Nearly everyone in Congress agrees that we have great need to invest in our transportation system, including our roads, bridges, and transit systems. We can all cite big numbers explaining the challenge in stark numbers. However, our problems run far deeper than just overall lack of funding.

To be clear, I’m very supportive of more funding for transportation, and my organization, Transportation for America, has produced a revenue proposal that suggests several specific ways the federal government could raise long term, reliable funding for our nation’s transportation needs. Congress has consistently increased transportation spending with each successive reauthorization bill, sometimes by large amounts (like with TEA-21 and SAFETEA-LU) and sometimes more modestly (as in MAP-21 and the FAST Act). While some progress has been made, progress has been uneven and we are simply not getting the maximum benefit from these investments—even with increasing federal spending.

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I’m going before Congress today to talk about how we can get more out of the transportation investments that we do make. Because the bulk of this spending is handled outside of the annual budget and appropriations process, we only sporadically talk about how much we spend on transportation or how we could get out of the investment.

 

For one, we do nothing to require that current spending be prioritized for repairs. So while we all cite huge figures for mounting repair needs to make the case for investing more transportation dollars, there is no guarantee that the current transportation program—no matter how well funded—will actually repair our roads, bridges and transit systems.

There are some parts of the federal program that support aligning spending with priorities and also encourage innovation and leveraging of federal funds. These are the competitive grant programs, my favorite of which was created by the THUD committee—the TIGER program.

When I was at the U.S. Department of Transportation, my office managed this program and it was by far the most popular at the Department of Transportation. That’s because it’s flexible, and is one of the only programs that allow cities and counties to directly access federal funds. It remains popular despite the fact that only five to six percent of applicants received any funding. 

In fact, part of my job was explaining to the 94 or 95 percent of applicants who didn’t get funded why their applications weren’t chosen. It is not easy to have a popular program when you are saying no to almost everyone. But through competition, applicants and stakeholders could see the strategic priorities of DOT in the funded projects.

The program encouraged project sponsors to try strategies they had never tried before — like design-build project delivery or complete street designs or public-private partnerships. While I was at DOT, TIGER projects brought two non-federal dollars to the table for every one TIGER dollar they received. 

I have seen some analysis that shows this leveraging has continued to increase. I also saw project delivery complaints, like issues with the National Environmental Policy Act fade away when project sponsors faced time constraints on the TIGER funding. Turns out that American cities and states will go a long way to beat out their neighbors and to keep a federal grant. Competition brings out the best.

TIGER, along with programs like New Starts, Small Starts, and the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure & Safety Improvements program, encourage transportation agencies to work with their sister agencies to coordinate funding streams and planning efforts. 

One of the places where this can have the greatest impact is when transportation and development decisions are coordinated with one another to serve the same goals. Aligning transportation investments and development patterns can prevent transportation agencies from a complaint I regularly hear from transportation agencies: that they are constantly “chasing land uses.” 

They say as soon as they address one group of needs along a corridor, poorly designed development pops up and undercuts their investment, sending them back to the drawing board. Using competitive programs can reward those that interrupt this pattern, create better connectivity and avoid trying to fix poor land use choices with expensive (and often ineffective) transportation solutions.

I regularly hear about school districts that routinely place new schools on the outskirts of towns to save money on facilities. 

Only after this investment was made did people think about the transportation burden they were putting on families and the cost that would be associated with busing everyone to schools that once were easily reached on foot. They would come to U.S. Department of Transportation and present this not as siting error but as a transportation challenge that required transportation spending to fix.

Land use is a local issue, making it one of the reasons that local governments are essential to the transportation program. That is the level of governance that can best coordinate these efforts. However, we are starting to see states seek ways to better engage in the development conversation as well.

Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota stated it about as well as anyone I’ve ever heard when talking about his Main Street Initiative:

“A community’s horizontal, low density expansion often results in a geographic footprint that is increasingly expensive over time, even to the point of becoming economically unsustainable. Larger footprints require communities to invest more in virtually every category—from new water towers, sewer lines and sewage systems, to streetlights, sidewalks, snow plows, lawnmowers, garbage collection, and more. And these aren’t one-time costs—they’re ongoing expenses that require personnel and maintenance, year after year. Ultimately, this leads to bigger government, higher property taxes, and unsustainable spending.”

I am sure Burgum is not calling for the federal government to get involved in local land use decisions. No one is calling for that. It is not an issue that can be handled through federal dictates or regulation. However, it is not a cost burden that the federal taxpayer should have to bear either. 

Through competitive programs that this committee funds, the federal government can reward the states and local leaders that are coordinating land use and transportation to encourage less expensive local development patterns. 

This can reduce the need for humongous funding increases and make the case to the American taxpayer that we are maximizing federal investment and not passively reacting to and throwing money at the problems caused by inefficient land use patterns.

Competition can also make it possible to reward those that are getting more out of their transportation investment. With the new federal rules requiring states and MPOs to measure the performance of their transportation system in terms of safety, state of repair and system reliability, transportation leaders will set goals for their programs and report to stakeholders and the public whether they have met their own goals. 

While the new federal rules are rather gentle — transportation agencies set their own targets, grade their own papers and suffer no real consequence for failure — these rules are an important first step to greater transparency in this program and to making clear to stakeholders and the public how far current spending can really take us in meeting federal, state and local policy objectives.

Transportation for America works with overachieving transportation leaders that want to go beyond the federal minimum requirements and more typical engineering measures to consider metrics like transportation costs and access to jobs, education and essential services.

Finding ways to reward agencies that set tougher performance targets, get greater results and use more innovative outcome measures is going to be an important task for Congress in the future. The competitive programs that you all fund can play a significant role.

Federal funding is not the sole answer to addressing our nation’s transportation needs, but it is essential. Across the country, our cities, rural towns and suburbs—the local centers of commerce that form the backbone of America’s economy—are in a serious bind: they know they must have top-notch transportation networks to attract talent, compete on a global scale, and preserve their quality of life. 

They know they need to get workers of all wage levels to jobs, and eliminate bottlenecks in freight delivery. These communities are stretching themselves to raise their own funds and to innovate, but they cannot bring these important projects to fruition without a strong federal funding partner. Federal programs are often the lynchpin for aiding states and localities in meeting the twin demands of maintaining their existing infrastructure and preparing for the future. It’s up to Congress to make those dreams possible.

Beth Osborne is a senior policy advisor for Transportation for America, which assist municipalities in working with state and federal government on transportation solutions.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.